Town and Gown

December 3, 2004 | 24 comments
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I told Gordon that I’ve been doing some writing about the relationship between Provo and BYU, and if you don’t mind I’d like to enlist the assistance of T&S in helping me solve a few riddles. For those who have never lived in Provo, please pardon the indulgence.

In the “town and gown” literature, the usual way of relating a town and its college is through an economic relationship. The university gives the town new residents, art and science, acclaim, and all of this creates a financial windfall for the town, putting it on the map if it is not otherwise there, making it a place where businesses want to invest. The town, in turn, gives land, utilities, parking (a perpetual conflict everywhere), and housing. Town and college work together to make each other rich. Universities often release dollar figures showing how much the town nets from their presence; towns use the same figures to show why citizens should support the university.

I do not deny the economic relationship in assessing Provo and BYU; indeed the history Provo could never be entirely understood without reference to BYU’s housing policy. Still, I feel BYU’s religious orientation requires me to strike out in another direction. BYU, as a religious institution, has a different relationship with its host town than would a non-religious institution. For one thing, BYU students and Provo residents overwhelmingly share the same religion. The belief systems do not match in all particulars, of course, but many of the basic assumptions about the world are the same, quite unlike colleges located in religiously pluralistic communities. In this way, the symbolic boundaries between Provo and BYU could be said to be more fluid or porous than in many other college towns. That makes a difference in how student and citizen approach each other. Like it or not, Mormonism profoundly mediates the relationship between BYU and Provo.

How does Mormonism make a difference in the BYU-Provo relationship? Think beyond the housing wars (although that, too, is mediated by Mormonism) to classic Mormon values like thrift, self-reliance, family, eternal marriage, etc. I think there is more to this question than we might realize at first glance.

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24 Responses to Town and Gown

  1. quinn on December 3, 2004 at 7:10 am

    i find the topic interesting, but i have a question. since i didnt attend BYU, ( i attended U of Texas in Austin, which as i can suppose is probably a good example of what is being talked about here, although being the capital of texas, perhaps it is not entirely the same, but anyways) what are these “housing wars” that are mentioned? im aware that BYU students have to live in certain types of houses and what not, but i not familiar with how that creates a “war”, or atleast how this war has started. i know that it is not totally on the topic, but i would be interested to know.

  2. Ivan Wolfe on December 3, 2004 at 8:23 am

    One problem with the BYU-Provo thing is that I felt there wasn’t enough of a connection between BYU and Provo. Local Politicians didn’t campaign on campus because only something like 10% of the student body that could vote in local elections actuall did. Service work in the community wasn’t anywhere near what it should be, and then there were the constantly shifting zoning laws enacted because so-called family neighborhoods didn’t want any students living nearby and ruining their lifestyle.

    BYU is kinda like the vatican – it exists inside a certain city, but it exists in its own little world – and I think that’s a bit of a shame.

  3. Jonathan Green on December 3, 2004 at 8:54 am

    Perhaps for parallels you could look at the original town-gown conflicts: Paris and other university cities in the 12th and 13th centuries, where the universities supplied the religious and ecclesiastical leaders for the surrounding areas. (That sentence makes a hash of the history, but I’ve got to run give a test. Is Bryan Warnick lurking around here? He might have something to say on the topic of this thread.)

  4. Jed Woodworth on December 3, 2004 at 8:56 am

    Quinn: I use the term “war” loosely to mean the tensions resulting from BYU’s policy of requiring that all undergraduate men and women live in separate housing units governed by curfews and gendered space within apartments (with each sex required to keep out of the bedroom space of the other sex). The wars involve three “opponents” (again, loosely described): the federal government, the city, and the students. I’ll mention just one landmark in the wars. In 1978, the US Justice Dept sued BYU for violation of the Fair Housing Act granting both sexes equal access to housing. The issue was whether BYU had a right to segregate men and women into separate buildings (BYU didn’t want male and female apartments to abut each other, thinking a concession was a slippery slope to forced desegregation of male and female apartments.) After sniping back and forth for a few months, the parties reached an out-of-court settlement: BYU could continue to segregate sexes by building, but it could only force BYU students to comply. Non-BYU students would have to rent elsewhere. The policy has since been moderated by allowing non-students to rent in “BYU-approved” housing on condition they sign forms saying they will abide the same rules as BYU students. The war with students and city (landlords, citizens) is ongoing and much more complicated. I’d rather not get into it, fearing the thread will get sidetracked.

  5. Adam Greenwood on December 3, 2004 at 9:12 am

    Except it’s the opposite, J. Green. The surrounding areas provide the ecclesiastical leadership for the university.

  6. Jonathan Green on December 3, 2004 at 10:28 am

    I wasn’t thinking of bishops of student wards, but rather the BYU religion faculty and their influence as church-sanctioned scholars of religion via FARMS and Education Week. I should have been more specific, but I was in a hurry.

  7. cooper on December 3, 2004 at 10:51 am

    I agree with Ivan. BYU has always seemed to be “outside” of Provo. Students don’t seem to have an impact on the community as a whole. It is perceived as “we came, we attended, we left” mentality of insiders to Provo. The university, therefore its student body, add value to a community that doesn’t appreciate that value in any way other than economic.

    I am not sure if it is the fault of the community or the fault of students and faculty as to the lack of interdependency. I do know that each loses more than they know by not becoming part of the greater community. Students could be encouraged to adopt Provo as a home away from home, to become better contributors to their new found society. However, as long as the community continue to see students as outsiders willing to accept menial, low paying employment – and nothing more – things will not change. It is the obligation of the community to open the doors and be welcoming, to accept the temporary nature of the university, while understanding how it can still benefit the whole.

    This is a larger discussion of the “Visitors Welcome” thread.

  8. Shawn Bailey on December 3, 2004 at 11:34 am

    I always wondered why more BYU students did not get involved with local politics, especially when local politicians seemed rather dismissive of student concerns. I even day-dreamed of trying to do something about it. A Provo city counsel with a few BYU students–or even a BYU student as the mayor of Provo–is not difficult to imagine if enough students got involved. Thinking about it now, it strikes me that running for real office in a college town would be quite an opportunity (much better than BYU’s seemingly powerless student council offices) for students with political aspirations.

    Reflecting on why few students got involved, it is my impression that many were simply apathetic while others decided to maintain their political ties (i.e., voter registration) with their home towns/ states. Of course, many were also probably too caught up in either having fun (like people I knew) or reading cases in the basement of the law library (like me) to get a movement going.

  9. jpatch on December 3, 2004 at 12:44 pm

    I thought about getting involved with local politics by just attending some city council meetings and expressing my opinion, but I did not for severeal reasons–the most important of which was time pressure of school and work. I also realized that my opinion was probably worth less than two cents.

    Considering the almost unbearable arguments that occured through the letters to the editor of the Daily Universe, is it really desirable that more students get involved in Provo politics? I can just imagine a student at the city council meeting asking for a ban on the sale of single strap bags in Provo.

  10. Ethesis (Stephen M) on December 3, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    Provo had a very stagnent economic base for a long time — landlords took their money and put it into passbook savings. I had a law professor who dispaired over how the money from BYU, instead of having a normal multiplier effect, drained away like water on sand.

    In addition, Utah passed special “student exploitation laws” which established a de facto seperate minimum wage for BYU students (I knew students living in Salt Lake who did not have to contend with such).

    Back in the old days, it was “big money men” from Ricks who built the first disco in Provo.

    Some interesting stuff there.

  11. quinn on December 3, 2004 at 1:14 pm

    jed, thanks for the info

  12. J. Stapley on December 3, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    Two observations 1) A couple of Months ago (I think August) The Atlantic Monthly (I don’t now why I insist on still adding the “Monthly�) had a map of religious affiliation (% population affiliated with any religion). #1 Provo, UT. I’ll just add that I live in what the article called “The Godless Northwest�.

    2) I knew a guy from my French classes and Folk Dance days (He played in the band), who was on the Orem City Council.

  13. clark on December 3, 2004 at 1:53 pm

    The housing issue is always contentious. For instance on my street there is a conflict between students who buy houses and then rent them out to 3 – 5 other students and then the married people out of school. The problem is that it leads to massive parking problems and then the inevitable late night parties that bother families with small children. I think this is the biggest issue at the moment. Technically it is regulated against by both BYU and Provo City, but in practice neither does anything about it.

    I’m sympathetic to both, since I was an older single. (And ironically I nearly bought a house beside my current one about 5 – 6 years ago and was going to rent it with 3 other singles and have late night parties and a hot tub) I think far too many families expect all singles to be like they were at 21. However by the time of your late 20′s you want your own place, have a lot of stuff, and so forth. Further you frequently do stay up late. (Heavens, until I had a kid I still stayed up until 2 in the morning)

    Provo also has the odd issue of a quickly growing UVSC. This means Orem is starting to do the student housing bit that Provo faced. (Massive construction around UVSC the past few years) However this has bothered BYU which wants to ensure BYU students don’t have problems with non-BYU students. So they are cracking down on housing and I think making it so you have to live quite close to campus if you are single and under 25.

    I should add that unless you live in the dorms, BYU’s housing restrictions are pretty lax. About the only annoyance that everyone deals with are the late night pool issues and then the inevitable battle over bikinis. Other than that it never is really an issue (unlike the horror stories I hear from Ricks/BYUI)

  14. clark on December 3, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    One other quick point, the whole Provo resident / BYU Student divide is a bit strained. The vast majority of Provo permanent residents went to BYU, often within 10 years earlier. So there is a much stronger connection. In a way the fact they still live in Provo (as opposed to having moved away) means that one never quite stops thinking one is still a student. Heavens, I’ve only made it on campus maybe once or twice a year and I still tend to still think of myself as part of BYU.

  15. Jed Woodworth on December 3, 2004 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve enjoyed all these excellent comments. Let me throw out some new ideas to further the discussion. I may have misled people into thinking I was asking only about student-citizen interaction. We all know students are too busy for that! Here are a few additional lines of thought introducing some of the ways Mormonism might mediate Provo and BYU. I’ll have more to say about one of these ideas, the cultural arts, in a post I will put up tomorrow.

    Thrift. Provo has no high-priced restaurants. The most expensive, the Restaurant Roy, folded a few years ago, replaced by the lower-scale The Chef’s Table. In other college towns high-end restaurants cater to wealthy alumni who come in on weekends to spend money. Provo doesn’t have that. When people want fine dining in Provo, they go to The Sky Room, which is—surprise–not open for dinner. The real calling card there, the mountain view, obscures the mediocrity of the food. The Riverwoods, a trendy new restaurant/shopping complex on the Provo-Orem border, may be signaling a new generation of BYU-Provo Mormons willing to flash a bit more card than their parents.

    Family. Provo has many, many children. BYU students bare a lot of them. How does that change the face of Provo? Well, for one thing we know the sacrament meetings are noisier, particularly in Wymount Terrace. Has anyone ever noticed the diaper isle or the peanut butter isle in Provo grocery stores? Macy’s has big tubs of peanut butter the likes of which Cambridge or Amherst has never seen. The large number of disposable diapers may mean Provo generates more garbage—and more non-combustible garbage–than other college towns. The large number of children may convey the impression that Provo is friendly to families. That would draw people to Utah Valley who may not otherwise move there.

    Eternal Marriage. Provo may have more ring-buyers per capita than any place in the country. This makes a difference for Utah County businesses. Outsiders have noticed the peculiar marriage phenomenon. The large number of marrieds on the BYU football has long been a stat worth noting by national broadcasters. Olympic commentators marveled over the large percentage of BYU married students. What might this mean for Provo’s night-life? its bridal shops? its diamond stores? Courtship activities in Provo take on a different cast with eternal marriage as the end goal.

    Word of Wisdom. In many college towns students go to bars to meet people. In Provo students go to church to meet people. The church replaces the bar on every street corner. The rumor is that Provo has a finite number of liquor licenses and BYU has bought up most of them under assumed names. (I doubt this very much, but I would be interested if anyone knows anything about it.) College towns like Ann Arbor and Madison have popular tobacco shops where students loiter; BYU has the Creamery. Cigarette butts litter the steets of many college towns. In Provo an occasional waft of cigarette smoke forces BYU students to remind themselves what they are smelling.

    Temple. Provo may have the largest covenant community of students in the Western world. People promise to give over their lives to Christ and His church. And Provo residents make the same promises. Student and citizens are, for one moment in time, at least, of “one heart and mind.” Does that change the daily walk and talk of students? of citizens? how is Provo changed as a result?

    Comments? Additions? Corrections? I have said nothing about how Mormon inclinations toward exact sciences like engineering and computer science have generated technological advances influencing Provo’s development. I am interested in generating a list of additional categories.

  16. Clark on December 3, 2004 at 4:26 pm

    The night life issue is interesting. In my experience it is very, very hard to get a successful restaurant or night life going on here. Part is understandable – there is the ward for activities for freshmen and sophomores. People get married earlier and therefore correspondingly don’t have the money to spend the way singles do. At the same time though, most singles I knew wouldn’t consider hanging around Provo and either go up to Park City or Salt Lake City.

    With regards to nice restaurants, not to go off on too much of a tangent, but alcohol is, I’ve been told, a big issue. The margins on alcohol sales are high and subsidize the nice food. Thus the nicest restaurants are in Park City and SLC.

    Likewise not having older people who eat out at nicer restaurants in Provo hurts things. You look at the successful restaurants around Utah County and they are chains focused on middle class tastes. You just don’t have that sense of experimentation or fine dining here. That isn’t so much a BYU thing, as it is just a Utah County thing. Once again while I can’t say, I think that people who want those things just expect to go to SLC or Park City and it is hard to stay in business even if you open a place.

    You are right about lots of diamond stores and bridal stores.

  17. Ivan Wolfe on December 3, 2004 at 6:41 pm

    J. Stapley -

    I know that same guy – I also played in one of the folk bands at BYU (although never in the same ones he did – but we rubbed shoulders). His presence as a student on a local city council (Orem) was treated as something of a fluke by the local media, IIRC.

  18. Bryan Warnick on December 4, 2004 at 12:37 am

    Jonathan Green: I didn’t know you were THE Jonathan Green. It is nice to know that there is life after Urbana-Champaign!

  19. Ed Enochs on December 4, 2004 at 12:50 am

    To read about some many LDS and secular rock concerts is very disheartening since I thought the vast majority of you Mormon folk are morally upright and all together separate from the World.

    The Bible is clear, we are not to be conformed to this world, but transformed by the reknewing of our minds” (Romans 12:1-2).

    The Bible says, we are not to love the things of this world. (James 4:4 and 1 John 2:19).

    I am very disappointed to read about you LDS enjoying secular rock artists who are known homosexuals (Elton John) and bands named after illegal drugs. (Doobie Brothers)

    While I am know fan of Mormon hyms, I would rather listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir any day than those blashphemers, homosexuals, adulters and immoral persons. I appeal to you to be virtuous as your faith commands you and not lower the bar and listen to that kind of music that defiles.

  20. Bryce I on December 4, 2004 at 1:21 am

    Ed Enochs–

    You’ve been working so hard tonight that I hate to do this, and actually, it’s probably not even my place, but your comment above doesn’t quite fit the spirit of Times and Seasons. It’s fine to say “I am very disappointed to read about you LDS enjoying secular rock artists who are known homosexuals (Elton John) and bands named after illegal drugs. (Doobie Brothers)”. It’s a bit close to the line to call us LDS rock music listeners to repentance, and it’s clearly unacceptable to imply that we LDS rock music listeners are not “morally upright”.

    You might want to take a look at the comment policies.

    Also, you may want to take note of the fact that the word “homosexual” carries a very different kind of emotional weight around here than what you might expect.

    Again, I really appreciate all of the work you’ve done tonight. Just wanted to point out some of the local rules and customs to you.

  21. Jim F. on December 4, 2004 at 1:25 am

    Thanks, Bryce.

  22. J. Stapley on December 4, 2004 at 1:41 am

    Ivan: Cheers! While the bands were a little aloof from the dancers, it’s nice to have a quasi-connection. Not that I was a great dancer, but the folk dance team was a great way to meet chicks…nod to my wife laying next to me (…she was a great dancer).

  23. Steve Evans on December 4, 2004 at 8:19 am

    He’s right about the Doobie Brothers. I hope those guys break up!

  24. Ivan Wolfe on December 4, 2004 at 10:32 am

    J. Stapely –

    Gee, and in the band we always felt the dancers were a little aloof from the band!!! ;)

    It’s all good. And folk music/dance was a great way to meet chicks (except I wound up amrrying a fellow english major).